The Death of American Idol
Image by h e l e n ♥ via Flickr
I've kept silent, until now, about my feelings on the season-ending showdown between Kris Allen and Adam Lambert. Partially because I felt too strongly about it, and partially because many bloggers I respect, TV bloggers who I consider friends, were strongly pushing Kris to win. Their reasoning included the obvious (Kris is a total hottie), the market-savvy (Adam will get a record deal anyway), and the salient (Kris sang the crap out of "Heartless").
But sadly and distressingly, they also bought into the coded homophobia of this season of American Idol -- especially the unforgiveable sensationalism of the Entertainment Weekly cover story that compelled voters to consider Alan's (homo)sexuality in their voting decision, the blog-buzz criticisms of his "theatrical," "flamboyant" style, and the jokey ridicule of his makeup and costumes. Sure, this homophobia was guarded and never overt, but it was indisputably there, and even gay television bloggers bought into it. Which, frankly, was appalling.
Why? Because even if you love Kris , it is absolutely impossible to argue he was the more accomplished singer. Furthermore, it is impossible to argue he is a better interpretive artist. If you believe otherwise, you simply do not understand music, or the history of American rock'n'roll...and you probably own Jason Mraz albums.
The finale, perhaps better than any other episode, made the contrast between Kris and Adam's vocal abilities obvious. As Kris fumbled through the final number with Queen, "We Are The Champions," Adam embodied the ghost of Freddie Mercury more fully than any performer may ever have. (Even Brian May couldn't take his eyes off Adam afterward.) As Kris strummed a by-the-numbers guitar rendition of "What's Going On" that sounded dismayingly similar to his version of "Heartless," Adam transformed and recontextualized the blues underpinnings of "A Change Is Gonna Come." And don't get me started on "Mad World," an unjustly ignored 80's classic that Adam has singlehandedly reclaimed from obscurity.
Take a spin around the web today, and I'm pretty sure you'll see the meme in the global media: Kris, the wholesome, married "underdog," came "from behind" to beat the "flamboyant" rocker in a "surprise." But I think we all knew last week (if not before) that the narrative of Adam being the frontrunner was based only on a judgement of talent; in reality, the votes have been neck-and-neck for weeks. When the evangelical, hard-right, family values contestant Danny Gokey lost last week, the writing was on the wall...or did you suppose Gokey's churchgoing supporters were secret Bowie and T. Rex fans?
Why is this important? Because the media made Adam Lambert's sexuality an issue...not only in their columns and articles, but in the actual Idol voting process. And since no openly gay person has ever won a reality show based on popular votes -- heck, gay people have never won a popular vote in Congress! -- there was a legitimately instructive moment here. Would people recognize the superior talent, or would their distaste for an androgynous star steer them away from it? Would people embrace an openly gay person as an instant superstar...or choose the safer, and clearly less worthy, choice?
Now, before you all start blowing up my comments area, let me say: Kris is a perfectly nice singer. I like him, more than most winners of previous seasons. He is vastly preferable to Taylor Hicks, Jordin Sparks, etc. I will probably buy his album (unless it's gospel).
But for anyone who knows actual music and vocal performance technique -- structurally, technically, the study and discipline of it -- knows the truth. Adam is simply extraordinary. Rare, even.
The shocked faces of Randy, Simon and Kara after the vote was announced showed that they knew America had fucked it up, maybe for the first time ever. (Well, at least since Chris Daughtry, but America has since rectified that mistake.) Heck, even Kris himself couldn't believe it...the first words out of his mouth were "I can't believe it...Adam deserves this." He knows the truth, too.
In later years, when people start to ask the question, "When did Idol jump the shark?", I'll know my answer. It was May 20th, 2009, when they decided that a blazingly talented kid would be denied the keys to the kingdom...because he was too damn